NYC Food Deserts: Talk and Action

The folks over at Slow Food USA recently highlighted this blog in their recent post about the troubling incidence of food deserts nationwide. You can see my previous writing on both rural and urban food deserts here.

They mentioned two articles from last week’s New York Times that I’ve been meaning to talk about. The first, The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need of Replenishment, has an awkward title but is a good article. Instead of just chronicling the distressing lack of supermarkets in areas that need them desperately, talks about why supermarkets are conspicuously absent in neighborhoods such as East Harlem. The article, a by-product of a recent study by the New York City Department of City Planning, shows some shocking numbers:

According to the food workers union, only 550 decently sized supermarkets — each occupying at least 10,000 square feet — remain in the city. [The study] estimated that as many as three million New Yorkers live in what are considered high-need neighborhoods — communities characterized by not enough supermarkets and too many health problems. Within those dense, urban areas, the study estimated that 750,000 people live more than five blocks from a grocery or supermarket.

“Many people in low-income neighborhoods are spending their food budget at discount stores or pharmacies where there is no fresh produce,” said Amanda Burden, the city’s planning director. “In our study, a significant percentage of them reported that in the day before our survey, they had not eaten fresh fruit or vegetables. Not one. That really is a health crisis in the city.”

The study, which was released last Friday, found that there is enough need in the city to support another 100 groceries or supermarkets.

That’s a lot of new grocery stores – nearly 20% more. That’s also a lot of people who are un- or under-served by neighborhood grocery stores, more than a third of New York city’s population, according to the 2000 census. That’s an unacceptably high number. And it’s a safe bet that it’s the elderly, poor, and people of color who are the ones left holding the short end of the stick. Even if you’re mobile and well off it’s a pain to get to a supermarket that might be several miles away, but it’s even more challenging if you can’t walk far, or have to take the bus, or have to work so many hours that it’s very difficult to get to a far-away store before it closes. All of those factors make frequent grocery shopping, and hence eating perishable things, like spinach or fresh tomatoes, much less likely.

It’s unsurprising, really, that the lack of supermarkets and high rates of obesity and diabetes would be correlated, and particularly concentrated in minority and poor neighborhoods.

There’s a summary of the study, titled Going to Market: New York City’s Neighborhood Grocery Store and Supermarket Shortage here, and a slide show with more detailed analysis here. All of the above maps were taken from the slide show presentation of the study.

The second article, equally clumsily titled City Farmers’ Crops Go From Vacant Lot to Market, discusses several inner-city farmers and gardeners in New York who grow enough to both provide themselves and sell the surplus.

The city’s cultivators are a varied lot. The high school students at the Added Value community farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn, last year supplied Italian arugula, Asian greens and heirloom tomatoes to three restaurants, a community-supported agriculture buying club and two farmers’ markets.

In the South Bronx a group of gardens called La Familia Verde started a farmers’ market in 2003 to sell surpluses of herbs like papalo and the Caribbean green callaloo.

At a less established operation, the Brooklyn Rescue Mission’s Bed-Stuy Farm, mission staff members began growing produce in the vacant lot behind their food pantry in 2004, and ended up with a surplus last year. So they enlisted their teenage volunteers to run a sidewalk farm stand selling collards, tomatoes and figs; this year they plan to open a full farmers’ market.

How did this happen? Opportunity and assistance. The farmers and gardeners wanted to grow, and other groups pitched in to help make it possible. But the real drive, the factor that made these small plots a success, was their community. Its hard to farm in a city, but it is possible, and it can work well, as the story of Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes shows.

The Wilkses’ return to farming began in 1990 when their daughter planted a watermelon in their backyard. Before long, Mrs. Wilks, an administrator in the city’s Department of Education, was digging in the yard after work. Once their ambition outgrew their yard, she and Mr. Wilks, a city surveyor, along with other gardening neighbors, received permission to use a vacant lot across from a garment factory at the end of their block.

They cleared it of trash and tested its soil with help from GreenThumb, a Parks Department gardening program. They found traces of lead, so to ensure their food’s safety, they built raised beds of compost. (Heavy metals are common contaminants in city soil because of vehicle exhaust and remnants of old construction. Some studies have found that such ground can be cultivated as long as the pH is kept neutral.)

They wanted their crops to be organic, a commitment they shared with many other farmers in this grimy landscape. They planted some marigolds to deter squirrels; they have not had rat problems, which can plague urban gardens; and they abandoned crops, like corn, that could attract rodents. They put up fences to thwart other pests — thieves and vandals — and posted signs to let people know that this was a garden and no longer a dump.

There were also benefits to farming in the city. The Wilkses took advantage of city composting programs, trucking home decomposed leaves from the Starrett City development in Brooklyn and ZooDoo from the Bronx Zoo’s manure composting program. They got free seedlings from GreenThumb and took courses on growing and selling food from the City Farms project at the local nonprofit Just Food.

“The city really has been good to us,” Mrs. Wilkes said. “All of the property we work on, it’s city property.”

The Wilkses now cultivate plots at four sites in East New York, paying as little as $2 a bed (usually 4 feet by 8 feet) in addition to modest membership fees. Last year the couple sold $3,116 in produce at a market run by the community group East New York Farms, more than any of their neighbors.

Clearly it will take more than a couple of small plots in formerly-abandoned lots to turn things around in terms of access to fruits and vegetables. But the example of the Wilkses and the other people growing appealing and nutritious produce for their neighbors, and working across all sorts of groups, offers a hopeful start.

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3 responses to “NYC Food Deserts: Talk and Action

  1. Pingback: “Food is a fundamental ordering principle of utopia.” « Back of the Napkin

  2. Pingback: Damek.» Blog Archive » Settling

  3. Pingback: “Food is a fundamental ordering principle of utopia.” « Punctuated Equilibrium

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